DETROIT -- Over the winter, the Mets signed Justin Verlander to maintain what they considered one of baseball’s finest rotations. With Jacob deGrom gone to Texas, the Mets zeroed in on Verlander as the pitcher who could best approximate deGrom’s production -- a quest that belatedly began on Thursday afternoon, when Verlander debuted with five effective innings against the Tigers.
What the Mets would rather not entertain is the notion that even a vintage Verlander might not be enough to stabilize their disjointed season. Despite only allowing two runs in his debut, Verlander took the loss in a 2-0 defeat to the Tigers. Over the final 22 innings of a three-game sweep at Comerica Park, the Mets batted .141 and scored one run. They have lost nine of their last 11 games and hold a 16-16 record, falling back to .500 for the first time since they were 6-6.
“We just need to find our identity,” Verlander said. “This series was difficult.”
In Verlander, at least, the Mets have some real, tangible hope for the future. Briefly at the start of the game, it appeared as if Verlander would be unable to wake the team from its recent pitching nightmare, as he allowed consecutive first-inning home runs to Riley Greene and Javier Báez. Coming less than 24 hours after Max Scherzer’s rocky return from a 10-game suspension, the performance lent credence to the notion that the Mets have serious trouble atop their rotation.
But then Verlander settled into a groove and showed why, even at age 40, he remains one of the game’s most dangerous pitchers. After allowing those homers, Verlander permitted just three other hits, improving both his command and his velocity in the middle innings. On a strict pitch count of around 90, Verlander averaged 95 mph on his fastball and topped out at 96.6, which is several ticks above where he sat during his final Spring Training start. He struck out five and walked one at the place he called home from 2005-17, reserving two of his three fastest pitches for his final batter in the fifth.
“We did put a lot of pressure on Verlander early, which made him dial it up a little bit for the mid part of his outing,” said Tigers manager A.J. Hinch. “We knew it would be semi-short coming off the rehab. But the series sweep against a team that’s pretty good and playing as clean as we did, that’s the most important thing.”
For the Mets, it’s a misfortune that they hope won’t linger now that their rotation is becoming whole again. Verlander, whom the Mets signed to a two-year, $86.6 million contract to pair with Scherzer atop their rotation, alerted the team on the eve of Opening Day that he was experiencing muscle discomfort near his right armpit. A subsequent MRI revealed a teres major strain, which was initially only supposed to cost Verlander a couple of starts. But the injury was slow to heal and the Mets proceeded cautiously with their 40-year-old co-ace, keeping him sidelined for five weeks.
When healthy, Verlander was routinely dominant throughout his 30s, winning his third career Cy Young Award last year at age 39. He and Scherzer became the third duo of three-time Cy Young winners to pitch for the same team in the same year, joining Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw (2021 Dodgers) and Steve Carlton and Tom Seaver (1986 White Sox) -- though Carlton and Seaver were never on Chicago’s roster at the same time.
Throw those sorts of names around, and it’s reasonable to expect greatness at any age. As things stand, the Mets have little alternative. Those two are the backbone of the team.
“We feel good about it,” said outfielder Brandon Nimmo. “We’re just glad that they’re healthy and that they’re moving in the right direction.”
The hope is that winning baseball will follow, and that the Mets won’t press too badly while they wait for it to happen. To wit: in the closing moments of the sweep, Nimmo singled with one out and attempted to steal second base. Though he understood the risk with the tying run at the plate, Nimmo cited closer Alex Lange’s slow delivery as reason to believe he could successfully swipe the bag “10 out of 10 times.”
“It’s like a 30-foot jump shot, right?” Showalter said after Nimmo was thrown out. “It’s a byproduct of us trying to push something that’s not there.”
Moments after that play, the game ended -- with an “L” next to Verlander’s name on the box score, and some noticeable frustration from those who were unable to prevent it.